Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Bloating of BAM and How to Sell Big Brain Science

The Bloating of BAM
a fictional retelling

OFFICE OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY POLICY (OSTP) : BAM planners!  We're very excited by the white paper you presented us following your Chicheley meeting.  Could you please shape this into a proposal for a Presidentially-endorsed project?

BAM:  Of course!  How about $10 million for developing new nanoprobes and improving imaging so that we can record from 100,000+ neurons at once?  These new technologies could accelerate systems neuroscience dramatically!

OSTP: (pause) Okay.  That sounds great.  But I don't think you understand - do you think we bother the President for $10 million?

BAM:  Sorry!  I meant $100 million!  We might be able to record over 1,000,000 neurons and maybe even get every neuron in Drosophila at once!

OSTP:  No.  We want a Presidential project.

BAM:  But we -

OSTP:  Higher.

BAM:  (gulp) Alright.  We need $3 billion.  We'll, uh, be able to do all the stuff before... and, uh, yeah we can totally do the entire human brain all at once.  Yep, all 90 billion neurons.

OSTP:  More.

BAM:  Oh, well once we've got that, curing Alzheimer's and Parkinson's should be a snap.

OSTP:  Great!  Done.


And that, Dear Reader, is how I imagine BAM ended up in the situation it's in.  The scientists behind BAM all seem like very reasonable people who would certainly tell you in private that it's ridiculous to expect to be able to record from every neuron in the human brain any time in the next 100 years.  Their language, in the initial Neuron article, is tentative on human research, and the minutes from the Caltech meeting this year suggest that "million-neuron march" (in mice) is what they see as a more realistic goal.  Yet there the President is, making oblique references to BAM curing Alzheimer's in the State of the Union, followed thereafter by the giddy announcement in the New York Times.

This is the critical communication problem for BAM: it's promising something it fundamentally can't deliver in any reasonable time frame.

So how do we resolve this dilemma?  Can we?  

Actually, wait a minute - should we even bother?  

As I thought about it more and talked to some people around campus here, I've come to think that maybe we shouldn't fix the communication problem.  I mean, here's the two basic ways to sell this thing, starting with what people are saying in interviews, but isn't showing up in the headlines:

(1) Retrench around "million neuron march" and technology development

It's both reasonable and excitingly ambitious to frame BAM this way: "Let us develop breakthrough technologies that will help us measure the brain on a scale we've never done before.  The tools we develop for generating and analyzing the data will revolutionize neuroscience and bring us closer to understanding how the building blocks of the brain are really put together." 

But this is also frustratingly abstract.  As a neuroscientist, hell yes!  As a member of the public, or Congress?  Yawn.  You don't get $3 billion for a "million neuron march".  And with that reality in mind,

(2) Why not oversell it?

Hey, why not claim that you're going to map the human brain and cure disease?  After all, that's what everyone in basic neuro ends up doing anyway in their grant proposals and publications. albeit on a smaller scale.  There was a period not too long ago when every paper about synapses had three sentences at the end about autism, even when nothing they did was anything other than remotely linked to the disorder.

The logic here is as follows: members of the public (and Congress) don't really pay attention to Big Science once it's been funded.  For instance, Michael Eisen has been dropping acid tweets about BAM since the news broke, mainly informed by his poor experience with something called ENCODE, another Big Science initiative.  But I didn't even know what ENCODE was until seeing his comments, and I'm a pretty-well informed member of the public (I think).

So it doesn't matter if BAM can't deliver on the human brain - after all we'd still be able to deliver on a bunch of other really cool things that actually might just revolutionize the field and benefit society in other ways.  One faculty member I spoke with compared it to stem cells - the public was initially sold on stem cells by arguing that we would be able to use them to cure all sorts of diseases in 5 years.  Naturally, California voters appropriated $3 billion to study themSo have we cured all sorts of diseases?  No, but good science got done and we're closer to those cured-disease endpoints than we would have been without the money (well, we think we are, anyway). 

I'm personally a bit uneasy about this approach (not a huge fan of lying and all), but I can't deny that there's a certain pragmatism to it.  There's no way anyone is going to give this much money to do basic neuroscience dressed as itself - so it's either you don't go for this much money or you bloat the project with grandiosity.  

Remember too that this is no superconducting super collider - even if Congress pulls the plug on this thing two years in, that's still $600 million dollars spent on basic neuroscience research.  Would that be such a bad thing? 

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